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Crime V - Mens rea I

Updated on August 4, 2017

Mens Rea is the common phrase that is used to denote intention i.e. the accused’s intention to commit murder or cause serious bodily harm. The act must be done with the intention to kill or cause serious bodily harm and the phrase is derived from the Latin maxim actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea i.e. the act is not culpable (blameworthy or deserving blame) unless the mind is also guilty.

As we journey through crime, the question why (the accused acted in the manner he or she did) will repeatedly pop up in our minds and it is a good question to ask. The motive, while it comes into play during sentencing as do other mitigating factors like the accused’s background, the environment he or she grew up in etc., does not have much of an impact when it comes to determining if the accused is guilty or otherwise.

If the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the accused was indeed blameworthy than the accused will be convicted and during sentencing the judge may display some leniency but that is something that is best left in the hands of the court.

The intention to kill or the intention to cause serious injury to another is not limited to the intended victim and it is transferable. It suffices that the accused intended to kill someone or cause serious bodily harm to someone and it does not necessarily have to be the intended victim.

In R v Latimer (1886) the accused while in a pub got into a fight and took off his belt to try and hit the intended victim with the buckle. The buckle missed and hit another woman, who was close to them instead, in the face. The accused was charged and he argued that he had no intention to injure the woman. It was decided that despite the fact that the accused did not intend to hit the woman, his act was blameworthy and he was found to be guilty.

In R v White (1910) the defendant laced his mother’s drink with cyanide. The mother however before she had consumed the drink had a heart attack and died as a result. The defendant’s attempt to poison his mother was however discovered and he was charged. The court determined that in order to find the defendant guilty of murder it must be established that the victim would not have died but for the defendant’s actions and because it was not the defendant’s act that had killed the victim the accused was found to be not guilty of murder.

However, we also have to ask the question; why else would an accused poison an intended victim’s drink if it was not to kill the victim? The act was culpable because the accused intended to kill the victim and the accused was accordingly convicted of attempted murder.

There is no need for the actus reus and the mens reus to coincide or they don’t always need to operate or run concurrently. Death does not have to occur at the time the act was committed or death does not have to be the immediate result of the act. It is sufficient that the act was done to kill or bring about the death of another.

In Thabo-Meli v R (1954) (Privy Council) the defendants, 4 in total, planned to kill the victim. They took him to a hut and hit him over the head and after they had committed the act, believing their victim to be dead, they threw him off a cliff. The victim however did not die as a result of the blow to the head or from being thrown off a cliff but died as a result of exposure. During the trial, the defendants raised the argument that the death was not a result of their actions and despite the fact that they had the intention to kill their victim their actions did not precipitate death or was not the cause of death.

The court decided that it was sufficient that at the time that they committed the act, the intention to kill was there and it did not matter if the defendant died on the spot or at some other location. It was the act that had ultimately led to the victim’s death or had caused his death. The act and the result i.e. the death of the victim must be looked at as a single act or the chain of causation remains intact and there has been no break in the chain, in this instance, to negate the defendants’ liability.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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